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Manchin Seeks Justice for WV National Guard Troops Exposed to Chemicals in Iraq

Press Release: Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)
June 17, 2011, Original press release on Senator Joe Manchin website

Defense Spending Bill Calls for Immediate Release of Report; Manchin Builds on Work of Senator Rockefeller and Others



Washington, D.C. – West Virginia National Guard members exposed to a lethal carcinogen in Iraq are one step closer to getting the answers they deserve after U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, included a provision in the Defense Authorization bill to finalize a report into the hazardous situation immediately.

In August 2003, after the invasion of Iraq, 122 West Virginia National Guard troops – along with servicemembers from Indiana, Oregon, and units from a few other states – were exposed to the potentially lethal levels of the sodium dichromate while protecting the Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Facility, an installation under the oversight of defense contractor KBR. Several servicemembers have experienced major health problems in the wake of their exposure and at least two Indiana servicemembers have died from cancer.

The Department of Defense issued a partial report in September 2009, but key questions remain unanswered because the release of the second half of the report has been overdue since late 2010.

“These brave servicemembers and their families have waited far too long for answers,” Senator Manchin said. “They deserve to know the truth about what happened to them and why. They also deserve to know that their government and their elected representatives in Congress will do everything possible to make sure they – and all our veterans – get the respect and help they deserve. I hope that this report finally sheds light on the truth these brave servicemembers deserve and have deserved for years.”

Senator Manchin is carrying forward the effort of several other Senators – including fellow West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller – who have long worked to bring justice to the servicemembers and their families. Senator Manchin’s contribution to this long-standing effort came during the defense bill “markup,” in which Senators on the committee negotiate the bill’s language. Senator Manchin successfully worked with his Democratic and Republican colleagues to include a provision that would require the Department of Defense to report to the servicemembers, their families and the American people about what happened in the Qarmat Ali water treatment facility. The bill requires the Defense Department to submit the report 60 days after the bill becomes law.

“The 122 members of the West Virginia National Guard who faced exposure in Iraq should receive high level attention and assistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs to see if they are at risk, and I fought to secure access for testing and care,” said Rockefeller, who is the longest serving member on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.  “It’s extremely important for every West Virginia Guardsmen who served at Qarmat Ali to go to the VA for the health care they deserve.  I’m also proud that Senator Manchin is pushing to get to the truth about this incident for Guardsmen and their families.  We must never stop working to make sure that our troops and veterans receive the care they need, including for the brave members of our West Virginia National Guard.”

Rockefeller is the former Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and a leader on issues to improve veterans’ care.

After members of the West Virginia National Guard were notified in 2008 of possible sodium dichromate exposure, Rockefeller fought hard to make sure that the DoD and the VA were notifying and testing soldiers, and that they had the contact information for those Guard members at their disposal.  He secured VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki’s commitment to provide specialized testing and care for soldiers when needed.

More than 900 soldiers and Army Corp civilians provided protection at the site. West Virginia National Guard’s 1092nd Engineer Battalion, along with Guard units from Indiana and Oregon worked as part of Operation RIO to guard the facility, which treated water used in fracking in Iraq’s oil fields.  Toxic dust was reportedly 4 feet deep in some areas. Soldiers have testified that when they were working on the site, they began having nosebleeds, nausea, trouble breathing and started coughing up blood.

Full text of the provision, with additional background, is below:

In 2003, U.S. service members, including members of the National Guard, serving in Iraq were exposed to sodium dichromate, a hazardous and carcinogenic chemical, at the Qarmat Ali Water Injection Facility.  Since then several members of Congress have requested information regarding this issue.  In a letter to the Secretary of Defense, dated September 15, 2009, this committee requested an evaluation of the adequacy and timeliness of the Department’s efforts to identify and contact soldiers who were or may have been exposed to sodium dichromate to determine if those soldiers were experiencing medical problems related to the exposure and to ensure that they have access to appropriate care.  The committee also asked the Secretary to identify any additional actions that may be necessary and specify whether any require authorization or funding from Congress.  On September 17, 2010, the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Defense responded on behalf of the Secretary and provided a report entitled, “Exposure to Sodium Dichromate at Qarmat Ali in 2003:  Part 1 – Evaluation of Efforts to Identify, Contact and Provide Access to Care for Personnel”.  The response also explained that a “second part of the review, which is based on a requested originating from seven of your colleagues on the United States Senate Democratic Policy Committee to review the Army and contractor actions taken at the Qarmat Ali facility in 2003” was underway and that a draft report was expected to be issued by the end of 2010.   To date, this second report has not been received.

The committee believes it is important to have a full accounting of any environmental assessments performed by the contractor prior to service members entering the site; an assessment of the health risks associated with exposure to hazardous chemicals at Qarmat Ali prior to site encapsulation; and to better understand the site assessment by the Defense Health Board.

Accordingly, the committee directs the Secretary of Defense to ensure that the second part of the review is completed expeditiously and submitted to the Congressional defense committees within 60 days.

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